Last summer, the Los Angeles Lakers entered free agency in search of a post player. Key bigs Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, and Carlos Boozer were all unlikely to return and the team had just passed on center Jahlil Okafor in the draft.
They pitched LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, and Greg Monroe, but couldn’t get any of them to take their money. The Lakers then dueled with the New York Knicks over Robin Lopez, but ultimately lost out. Finally, just when it appeared that the Lakers would be left high and dry, GM Mitch Kupchak swung a trade with the Indiana Pacers to land former All-Star, Roy Hibbert.
Lakers fans, who were in a panic over the team’s lack of a center, could finally exhale.
Hibbert appeared to be a solid fit for Los Angeles. He had worn out his welcome with the Pacers, but was still considered one of the top rim protectors in the league. On a Lakers team with plenty of scoring but few lockdown defenders, a center with Roy’s skill set was a must.
In an ideal world, the 7’2” Hibbert would focus almost entirely on the defensive end of the court, using his length to deter attackers who had slipped past an aging Kobe Bryant and the very green trio of Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and D’Angelo Russell.
Expectations heading into the season were high. After all, Hibbert was the backbone of a Pacers team that was considered to have the best chance at preventing LeBron James from super-friending his way into the Finals. Hibbert had nearly single-handedly created the verticality revolution, allowing centers to remain somewhat relevant in spite of rule changes catering towards guards.
Hibbert’s expiring deal also pays him nearly $16 million, which means that top-notch production was needed in order for him to live up to his paycheck.
Unfortunately, Hibbert’s lone season in Los Angeles has proven that the Pacers were correct in their conclusion that the new, pace-and-space NBA had lessened the impact of slow, plodding players.
Quite simply, the league had passed him by in just a few short years.
Big Roy has conclusively shown that he doesn’t have the mobility necessary to defend the pick-and-roll or switch onto perimeter players, something that is becoming a must in the NBA. Making matters worse, when adjusted for minutes played, his points, rebounds, and blocks are all at career-low levels, and opposing teams are taking advantage of him.
Last week, the Phoenix Suns used Hibbert’s presence to dismantle the Lakers from deep. With Tyson Chandler out of action, the Suns had little choice but to go small whenever center Alex Len was out, using power forwards Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic at the four and the five.
Teletovic and Leuer took turns torching Hibbert from the outside, who couldn’t get out to the three-point line fast enough to prevent the shot. Together, they shot 7-of-10 from deep and racked up 39 points.
On the other end of the floor, the Suns threw a few zones at the Lakers, knowing that Hibbert doesn’t have the offensive game to punish them for guarding him with a smaller player. On a few comical possessions, Brandon Knight wound up guarding Hibbert in the high post after a switch.
The height difference of nearly a foot was certainly noticeable, but even so, Hibbert was unable to generate anything positive. The Suns stayed at home rather than doubling, knowing that allowing Hibbert to stumble into creating his own shot (even against a much smaller player) is preferable to leaving a shooter open.
Of course, these sorts of problems are tolerable if Hibbert is making up for it by turning the paint into a no-fly zone. At one point, he was one of the most feared defenders in the league, and finishing any shot near the rim was a daunting prospect.
For the Lakers, though, Hibbert’s rim protection has been a disappointment. Opponents are now shooting nearly 59 percent within six feet of the basket against Hibbert, a stark contrast from the 44.6 percent that he gave up during his last All-Star season in 2013-2014.
By comparison, seldom-used Tarik Black allows opponents to shoot just over 60 percent from within six feet, while providing greater lateral quickness to help handle the pick-and-roll.
One would expect the difference between Black and Hibbert to be much more pronounced since Black is five inches shorter and makes just under $15 million less.
In fact, if the Lakers were solely concerned with rim protection, Robert Sacre actually leads the team in defensive field goal percentage at the rim at just over 54 percent, although he has the smallest sample size of the three and has the same quickness issues that Hibbert does.
It also has to be noted that, as the starting center, Hibbert is often matched up against the other team’s best finishers, which could account for some of the discrepancy between his numbers and those produced by reserves like Black and Sacre.
The Lakers porous perimeter defense also helps explain some of the drop seen in Hibbert’s stats compared to his days in Indiana. As bad as the numbers look, there are some legitimate reasons for them.
Still, the point remains: most of Roy Hibbert’s value stems from his rim protection, and he isn’t nearly as good at it as he used to be.
None of this is to say that Hibbert is a bad guy. By all accounts, he has been an excellent presence in the locker room and a mentor for the young Lakers. He just isn’t a starting-caliber center anymore.
On a much cheaper deal, Hibbert still has a role in the NBA off the bench, where he can help neutralize other bigs who prefer to stay in the paint. He is still something of a deterrent at the rim, but his skills in that area no longer justify paying him top dollar.
As much as the Lakers have enjoyed having Hibbert around this season, it appears that he will need to drastically lower his expectations prior to this summer’s free agency period if he hopes to make his time in Los Angeles anything more than a stop over.